Every night at Money Lab, we hit what was, for me, the climactic moment of the show—the “patronage” auction. Unlike the other auctions that preceded it, the winner of this auction would not be receiving anything tangible in return. It was an opportunity for one audience member to be a patron for one of the artists who had participated in the evening’s show.

It was not a commission. The artist would have the full freedom to create whatever he or she wanted to create, in the manner he or she preferred. The patron would merely be providing funding for one hour of that artist’s time, during which the artist would create…something. The only obligation of the artist: afterwards, a “grant report” (a short email) would be sent to the patron, giving an account of that hour of creation time.

When I conceived of the patronage auction, I expected we’d be pushing it to reach $20. Still, I thought, $20 an hour is a pretty good salary for an artist, in our society.

The lowest the hour of artist’s time went for was $42. The highest was over $200.

Money Lab was the most recent Untitled Theater Company #61 production, an experiment to see if economics could be explored through performance. This was partly accomplished through a rotating series of four acts per night, with a wide range of theatrical styles.

For example:

  • An opera (with music by Avner Finberg), starring Karl Marx performing text culled from three letters to Engels asking him for money.
  • A dance, choreographed by Patrice Miller, to the jargon of the 2008 collapse, using video clips from the event as its soundtrack.
  • Real-life economist Russell Roberts portraying Adam Smith, reading a poem he had written about the invisible hand.
  • A tap-dancing production number about stock market theory, with music and lyrics by Jonathan Roberts and Emily Zempel.
  • A toy theater puppet piece, performed by Tanya Khordoc and Barry Weil, about The Wizard of Oz and the gold standard.
  • My own interactive audio piece about the real-life island of Yap, where gigantic, immobile stones serve as currency.
  • Ken Monahan’s storytelling about the effort he led to buy the Beirut Airport right after the war in Lebanon, teaching him the meaning of money in the context of Middle Eastern politics.

The other half of the show was a framework of economic games including our auctions. All games used made up (but quite real, in terms of monetary value) currencies. One currency, red tokens, represented commerce/the necessities. The other, blue tokens, represented beauty and art. As it was represented on our onstage concession stand (with products whose values fluctuated throughout the night, depending on the actions of the audience), the red/commerce token items were mostly food, though theoretically they represented anything considered “necessary” for survival. The blue/art tokens were represented by books and cds. The first set of auctions defined the relationship: the red token auction was for a granola bar, the blue token auction was for a flower.

Right before the patronage auction, we held a red token auction for a jar of change. There was a twist: the top two bidders would pay, but only the top bidder would win. This was demonstrating the sunk cost fallacy: once the bidders were engaged, it was always more economically advantageous to up the bid than to give up the money for a losing bid, with no return to show for it. But at what time does it become wise to abandon those sunk costs and quit altogether? On some nights, this quandary inspired fierce battles, with both bidders paying above the value of the coins in order to avoid an even greater loss.

Occasionally, the passion of the coin auction would exceed the blue token/art “patronage” auction in intensity. The end values of our coinage would reflect that. On those nights, red tokens tended to be valued 50 percent more than blue tokens, during the final cash in.

But when the patronage auction took hold, as it did the majority of the nights, the final total would far exceed the coin auction. During our original workshop at The Brick in Brooklyn, the blue art tokens ended up being valued at 900 percent of the value of the red commerce tokens. Gyda Arber, who co-designed the games for Money Lab with me and was an onstage exchequer throughout the show, was the beneficiary of this most extreme difference in valuation.

At times I would manipulate the market. If the auction stalled, I would offer to match the next bid. However, more often than not, the auctions took on a life without my prodding.

The biggest surprise came at our second performance when someone asked: “Can I add my money to her bid?” Our MC, Mick O’Brien, looked at me, and I shrugged. Why not? And so crowdfunding was born. Soon everyone was chipping in a few dollars.

This was not a one-time event. In fact, the audience at about two-thirds of the performances found the way to crowdfunding. It was completely unexpected when we designed the auction, but it was the happiest of accidents that we stumbled into: communal affirmation of the artist.

When we had our full run at HERE Arts in March and April in downtown Manhattan, it seemed at first as if the same passion we had inspired in Brooklyn couldn’t be sustained. Commerce was winning out over art about half the time, and somehow a $40 to $60 patronage auction felt like a slight disappointment.

To me. Not to the artist involved. Because no matter what the amount, the money said to the artist: You are valued, so much so that an audience member, more often than not a complete stranger to you, was willing to give away his or her own money to ensure that you had at least one hour in which you could create, without the pressure of economic reality hanging over you.

By the end of our run at HERE, a new momentum had taken hold, and soon we were back in the $100 to $200 range. I don’t know if the audience contained more artists, wealthier audience members, or if the reviews were attracting more people drawn by our premise. But I do know we only experienced one low total during our final week of performance. It was the performance when an economics class had bought out over half of the house.

“Why should we bid?” I heard one pondering after the show. “What value do we get in return?”

It’s a good question. What value did the patrons get in return? All they were promised was an email two or three sentences long. It’s a question I confront all the time, when looking for funding for my theatre company and my own work. Grant applications constantly ask me to justify the value of what I do, by filling out forms in which they ask me to explain not only my artistic but also my social value. In return, I sometimes get a small sum which, when combined with other similar sums, can add up to enough to create one underfunded project. I find some fellow artists and then we are all underpaid together.

I love the work. I love the artists I work with. And every day I worry about money.

One dancer (slash actor slash writer) turned to me after her patronage auction closed and asked, “Do you know what this feels like? Is this what you feel like when you receive a grant?” Probably not. The grant process does not feel like an affirmation. It feels like a grind, in which writing the correct thing is more important than creating good work. Yes, good work is the goal, but the bureaucracy of funding stands as a barrier, and grant writing is a skill of its own, somewhat unconnected to the process of making art. Beyond that, the time and energy grant writing sucks up makes the creation it is supposedly funding twice as hard.

Come see what I do, and then decide, I beg. Occasionally someone does. More often, time constraints and the amount of people seeking funding prevents the funders from seeing the work.

What I was trying to capture in Money Lab was something else. I was trying to capture an instinctive answer that everyone who loves the arts knows. The value of paying the artist is twofold. It brings more art into the world, of course. And more importantly, it says that the artist is someone who deserves to be paid. $200 for an hour of work is not a fluke. It is what an artist should be paid, if only we could find a way to make society function as I believe it should. The value of art may sometimes seem invisible, but it exists. The patronage auctions and the enthusiasm of the bidding affirmed that, both for me and for the artists involved.

Now that the show is over, I have been asking myself how I can harness that same energy outside of the artificial environment I created in Money Lab. I’m not sure. What I do know is that some of the patronage email grant reports have already started coming in and they are exciting. Two puppeteers made sketches for their next project. An actor trained his voice with a vocal coach he couldn’t have otherwise afforded. A musician was inspired to start a composition he had been considering for a year or two. A writer sketched out her next play.

Here’s my answer to the dancer who asked me if I knew how it feels to be that subject of a patronage auction—I don’t. I created the auction, but that’s different than being auctioned. But I created it because, in some ways, it’s what I crave as an artist. I think it’s what most artists crave. Someone to stand up and say, your work has value. Create, and all I ask in return is the knowledge that somehow I have aided in that creation.

And a few dollars wouldn’t hurt, either.